By Cindy Marabito -
They’d come from all around. Not the whole world, but from the surrounding Texas towns. Paris. Whitehouse. Palestine. Evadale. All places that had one thing in common. Rural flight. Everybody had ganged up at Angel’s Last Rest Funeral Parlor in Tyler to pay their last respects. The Gas capital of the United States and Rose Capital of America was today the site of the last leave-taking for Jessie Duquette Gilmer. Beloved great and grandmother, mother and the wife of Darryl. Nothing was mentioned in the obituary about the first marriage to Louie Antoine “Swan” Vermeer. In fact, not much at all had been said after his passing in late 1959.
But, everybody had shown up. Angel’s Last Rest was full to the brim with stragglers on the front portal. Darryl was propped up on the first row in the main chapel by another lady who looked like she didn’t know where she was. Jessie’s first born, Larry Mack and his wife couldn’t make it, but everybody understood why. The Lou Gherig’s had taken a toll. Joyce Nell, Jessie’s girl from her first marriage was out in the front parking lot crying. There had been a dust up earlier inside when Darryl and Jessie’s son Bill Jack had threatened to call the law. Evalene had come with her new boyfriend, H.R. They’d just made a big announcement that she was a ‘fiance-é’ on both their Facebook pages.
Evalene’s son, Arnold Palmer, had brought his whole family. Even their baby, Amy Bell, who’d been born without its left nostril. Her condition was an honest cleft palate, but they didn’t like to call it that on the Go Fund Me they’d set up to raise money for the operation. Their church was also hosting a chili cook-off to help underwrite the procedure.
“Here, let me hold the baby,” Evalene said. “Get me a Kleenex, H.R. This one’s got some snot on her face.”
Arnold Palmer looked hurt. “That nose of hers is always running.”
H.R. handed the tissue to Evalene and winced. “Oh, boy. I think I twitched out my back again.” He grabbed the lower part of his spine and tried to stand straight.
“Oh, no, baby,” Evalene said. She turned back to Arnold Palmer. “He’s got to have another back surgery and this time we’re going for the rod and screws. We’re gonna fix that for good, aren’t we, baby?”
“Evalene, is that you?” A smiling senior lady tapped Evalene’s shoulder.
“Aunt Gus?” Evalene squinted her eyes. They were outlined in a luminous turquoise color that was impossible to get past.
“None but. So sorry about your dear mother. She will be missed."
Evalene was surprised at the outpouring of sentiment. None of Daryl’s sisters had cared much for Jessie and made it known. Evalene recalled the Gilmer family reunions which resembled home and out of towner football games.
“Did you see Daddy?”
“Yeah, I did. He didn’t seem to know this is a funeral viewing. I told him I was so sorry about Jessie and he said, “who?”
Evalene touched her head. “It’s that Alzheimer’s of his. We just play along with it.”
Aunt Gus said, “He just kept asking where JoAnn was.” Gus shook her had side to side in a knowing gesture.
“Wonder what made him think about her?”
Gus said, “Must be mixed up in the church house setting. They had a church wedding, him and JoAnn, you know.”
It wasn’t lost on Evalene. Aunt Gus never missed an opportunity to bring up Darryl’s first wife. There’d always been talk about Bill Jack’s birth date so soon after Jessie and Darryl’s wedding. They’d been married at the courthouse and the Gilmers never recognized it as legit.
“This is my fiancé, H.R.” Evalene tugged on H.R.’s arm.
Gus looked him up and down. “My, he’s a big ‘un, isn’t he?” The white goatee called attention to his rotund face.
H.R. turned to Evalene, “You got my pill bottle handy?”
Evalene began to dig through her purse. “Doc’s got him on strong back medicine. His last operation didn’t take.”
Gus said, “Might need to lose a few. Doctor Pennington had me reduce before my hip replacement. Y'all could find a diet plan to suit you both.”
Evalene winced at the comment. “We already got a new sleep by numbers and that’s helped, right, baby?” She turned back to Gus. “It’s been hard keeping off the weight since he had his spleen takened out.”
Gus was slow to hide a disapproving glare. “You all already sharing a bedroom?”
Evalene snapped back, “We moved into H.R.’s condo. No since in wasting rent money on two places, right, baby?”
Arnold Palmer clapped Gus on the back. “Hey, Aunt Gus. Long time, no see.”
She smiled up at Evalene’s son. “You are looking good and healthy, Arnold Palmer. We thought you’d never get off a them old painkillers.”
Arnold Palmer and Evalene exchanged a look. Darryl’s family had obviously kept up with the details.
“Aunt Gus this is my wife, Calista Ann.”
“Well, my, aren’t you pretty. And that outfit!”
“Thank you. It’s a Melania Trump.”
“The president’s wife?” Gus reached over and touched the synthetic leopard print.
Calista Ann smiled and shifted the baby to her other hip. “Mmm, hmm. They have a whole line of it at the Walmart.”
“It reminds me of y'all’s momma, Jessie. She would always wear her some tiger stripes.” Out of Gus’s mouth, it sounded like something not so good.
Evalene broke in, ‘Momma loved her leopard and lace. Anything shiny and pretty.”
“I seen where y'all had the collection going on for the baby. What happened to her head?”
Calista Ann looked sad. “She was born without her left nostril.”
Gus’s mouth flew open in shock. “You mean harelip?”
“We were just about to go view the body,” Arnold Palmer said. Evalene knew he was trying hard not to lose it.
Jessie Duquette Gilmer was sitting straight up in the casket.
“I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a corpse sitting upright, “Gus said.
“She always said that’s how she wanted it,” Evalene said and touched at her mother’s hair. It had turned completely white and dead. She was grinning ear to ear.
“She sure looks pretty,” Calista Ann said. “Y'all put on those matching ear-bobs and necklace set we gave her. Remember?”
“She was so proud of it,” Evalene said. “She had told me she wanted to be buried in it. And her lounging p.j.’s.” The deep vee-neck revealed a sagging and wrinkled breast line.
Calista Ann rocked the baby. Arnold Palmer took the baby’s hand and waved it at the casket. “Say bye bye to Memaw, Amy Bell.”
Bill Jack stepped into their circle. “She sure does look like herself,” he said.
Gus smelled fresh bourbon and looked at Bill Jack. He was known as a drinker, but here it was only 2 in the afternoon and at his own mother’s funeral viewing.
Bill Jack turned to Gus. “We rented a table over at Crawdaddy’s for afterward if y'all’d like to come. They let us bring food.” Bill Jack’s wife, Jada Lorraine and their grown daughter, Brianna stood next to him with locked arms. Brianna had just returned from a church trip to Africa trying to convert natives. At the last family gathering, Bill Jack had played a tape of the wannabe missionaries singing. To Gus, it’d sounded more like screaming.
Evalene added, “Oh, member how momma loved her crawdads.” She began to weep, but it sounded more like laughter.
Calista Ann said, “I brought that chocolate lasagna dish using Memaw’s recipe. Remember?”
“I hope you didn’t forget the confectioner’s,” Evalene said.
They all laughed, remembering the time Calista Ann had used salt instead of sugar in the Red Velvet Potato cake. Arnold Palmer laughed hard. “Well, nobody said I married her for her cooking, did they?”
H.R. said, “Evalene does it all. She’s a whiz in the kitchen and in the bedroom.”
Evalene started to giggle and then turned red when she saw the look on Gus’s face.
Arnold Palmer said, “I’m just sad we won’t have another Christmas with momma. I wanted us to have just one more.”
Evalene remembered her momma and how she loved her Christmas. If it shone, went sparkly, looked lacy or had spots, her momma loved it. She’d go year-round to garage sales to collect ornaments and holiday items priced to sell in the hot East Texas sun. Evalene had gone over early and boxed up the decorations before Joyce Nell could get to them. She remembered the Heavenly Hash with lots of marshmallows and the Memaw divinity she made every year with pecans.
“One of our church group said y'all put their house up for sale,” Gus said.
Bill Jack puffed out his chest. “Yeah, the reality agent said we ought to get street value.” He looked Gus dead in the eyes. “It’s a seller’s market.”
Gus tried to keep a calm smile on her face. Bill Jack thought he was such a know-it-all.
Evalene was thinking about her mother’s beloved prints. She was definitely going back to get Jessie’s Thomas Kinkades before her half-sister Joyce Nell could get her hands on them. Darryl wouldn’t miss anything and he was going to Peaceful Acres Retirement Village anyway. Jessie had collected framed prints of A Perfect Summer Day with the horses in the front yard. There was also Stillwater Cottage with the ducks floating in the running creek. Jessie’s favorite, though, was the Foxglove one. It reminded her of Christmas morning, she’d always say. You could almost see the people inside the lit-up house opening their presents if you squinted your eyes and pretended. Evalene remembered Christmas mornings when Jessie would say, “I want to go someplace pretty.”
They’d set up a gift table in the reception area. Somebody’d stood up all the condolence cards in a display with pink sparkling flowers and lavender hillsides. People had signed the guest register. “So sorry for your lost.” “May God wrap his comforting arms around you at this time.” “Our thoughts and continual prayers.” “Hope you are lifted up into HIS love.” “Lost in Christ.”
Gus fingered one of the cards before setting it back down on the walnut veneer finish. “I remember back before Jessie was saved. Her and Darryl used to love to go dancing. They’d stay out almost all night every Saturday night.”
Evalene said, “Momma loved her a party."
Gus continued, “It was right after they first married and just had Bill Jack.” She pointed at Bill Jack almost touching his stomach. The others were quiet as no one liked to recall Bill Jack’s birth date. The family had always celebrated his birthday a year later to disguise the near out of wedlock miss.
“JoAnn passed on last year.” JoAnn was Darryl’s first wife. There had been a hasty divorce so Darryl could marry the very pregnant Jessie. The town had been rife with talk about the shotgun wedding.
Bill Jack interjected. “We’re going to the Crawdaddy’s they just put in if you want to come along Aunt Gus.”
Evalene said, “Momma loved her crab. Remember?”
Gus shook her head no. “I don’t go there. It’s too close to that topless joint next door.”
Bill Jack’s wife, Jada Lorraine pressed her lips together in a disapproving look. She suffered from chronic constipation, so you never could tell whether it was her condition or her attitude when she got that look on her face.
Gus thought back to that Christmas so long ago. It was when their parents had that little house in South Park, when her and Darryl’s dad worked midnights at the refinery. Darryl had brought Jessie and her two kids, Larry and Joyce Nell. Bill Jack had just been born and the rest of the family ooo’d and ahh’d over him trying not to acknowledge his early appearance so soon after their wedding vows. Nobody mentioned his wife JoAnn who’d been taken to 5th floor at Baptist Hospital to be treated for a nervous breakdown.
Gus remembered JoAnn and Darryl’s girl, Elaine. She recalled the child sitting quietly on the Gilmer’s frieze couch. Elaine had looked as out of place as the modern Kroehler’s had in the Gilmer living room. She watched the girl as Larry and Joyce Nell opened their Christmas gifts. Joyce Nell had squealed with delight as she unwrapped the new Barbie doll and Barbie Dream House. They’d also given her the doll’s peach-colored Austin Healey with a Ken doll sitting in the driver seat.
Elaine had been too polite to say anything, but Gus could see the hurt in the girl’s eyes. Not only had she lost her dad and her mother in the hospital, but she had to watch his new family celebrate Christmas with all the trimmings. She wondered where Elaine had gotten off to. Somebody had said she’d gone off to college.
What Gus remembered clear as day was something she’d seen in Jessie’s eyes. She remembered watching as Joyce Nell ripped through her gifts. Jessie wasn’t looking at her own daughter, but was fixated on Elaine. There was a look on her face like you saw a cur dog give out when nursing a litter of newborn pups. Part mother and part killer. And you knew not to go near it.
She thought about Jessie when she’d look out in the distance and talk about her dreams. When she’d say, “I just want to go someplace pretty.” Gus wondered if that someplace was where she went.
Cindy Marabito is a writer, pit bull rescuer, filmmaker and activist. She has written and published "Pit Bull Nation," a memoir about saving death row dogs, "Jackson," a horror story told by a 15 year-old white girl and "Jules, the Truth Finder," a twin flames erotic paranormal romance novel. Her book "Small Texas," featuring "Lost in Christ" is a collection of tall tales and wild myths about salt of the earth types one meets amidst the swamps and boscage known as the Big Thicket. "Small Texas" transports the reader on a strange trip through funeral parlors and dance halls to meet up with the lonely housewives, wayward seniors, bohemian free spirits and country bumpkins who continue to spring eternal from the piney woods of East Texas.
See more of her work on cindymarabito.com.